empirical vs rational way

empirical vs rational way

The pendulum of movements seems to affect all spheres of life and philosophy is one of the prime examples. We have seen this in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle when one taught that the world consists of two realities and the other said they were two parts of one reality. Similar “pendularity” can be observed between the empirical philosophy and teachers of rationalism.

Rationalism: I think therefore I am.

This was the motto of Rationalism. Rationalists believed that the mind is above all. Considering the time of the philosophy’s birth and all the developments that took place in the science department, it is easy to understand this worldview. Things that before have been unknown and mysterious, like chemistry or astronomy, were being described in the language of the precise. So, the thinkers thought, what is stopping us from searching for the meaning of life that we can also describe in mathematical formulas of happiness?

Rene Descartes was the one who coined the famous phrase Cogito ergo sum, and his (as well as his fellow rationalists) thinking was that logic is pretty much the tool that, if utilized properly, can lead you to the understanding of the world. One of the features that stood out in their philosophy was that God was sort of a logical necessity, but not really Someone who could love or be a person at all. This was an attempt to explain the unexplainable God in the terms of what could be described with science. God still remained the Being behind the unanswered questions, but He was there almost as a prisoner, someone who just has to be there in order for logic to work, yet not necessary for other issues. The only great rationalist who tried to somehow unite Christian faith and this philosophy was Gottfried Leibniz who came up with the idea of monads – particles that exist outside of space-time, don’t have speed properties, yet they are what everything is made of. According to Leibniz, these monads were made by God. (Once again, God was a necessity since there was no other way to explain where these monads come from, but at least Leibniz tried, while Descartes didn’t pay any real attention to God and Spinosa’s God was in every single thing.)

Empiricism: I feel therefore I am.

Having struggled with the preciseness of uncertainty of life and failing to take all the necessary unknown factors into account to make sure that the formula works, the philosophers swung the pendulum the other way. If we cannot know everything, we can trust what we feel and experience.

Among great empiricists were John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. In their thinking, instead of going the way rationalists went discarding the value of experience altogether, empiricists implemented it in their idea of reality by saying that the mind is necessary for analysis of the experiences and information our senses give us. We can reflect on what we see or feel, for example, observing it, counting it, comparing it to something else, or remember it. But even among the followers of the empirical way, there were arguments. Just like in Plato / Aristotle disagreement, Locke “felt” that people are born with a blank mind that needs to be filled and what better way to do it than experiencing life? Hume contradicted that thinking, however, by saying that there are things we know intrinsically, things we have not felt ourselves.

Both of the approaches are understandable, but a golden middle is a must here. We cannot know everything (and we shouldn’t, probably; life would be rather dull if we knew everything), but we cannot just rely on our feelings either without the rational seed (the science would die and it also would be a dull world since no new knowledge would be imparted).

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